December 20, 2012

Poem of the Week: A Whole Wheat Poem [For Peggy]


Gary Allan Kizer

When a friend bakes you bread,
You eat their labor, which requires respect and teeth.
Eating the bread is your own labor, exchanged fairly
And no longer a commodity.

I cannot bake bread in return, I cook cans
On a lightbulb and they would be cold in the mail.
But I can write poems for bread bakers
And give them away free.

The bread you buy in the store is sour,
Too many hands have passed it toward the market.
You can no longer taste the bread bakers love,
All you can taste are sadness, routine.

Next time you go shopping, ask the man for
Bread with love in it, the free bread.
Free bread? With love in it? We're fresh out,
He'll answer, if he answers at all.

If our work tastes bad, think of those
Who own it, who buy it for enough to eat
Stale bread with. Think of those who stamp
A price on things we should do for each other.

When a friend bakes you bread, it in no way helps
Build your body strong in twelve different ways,
Or keep phony monks in business. It quietly asks you
To eat the revolution without rat shit mixed in.

from Let A Single Flower Blossom
(the greenfield review press, 1977)

[This poem touches several issues, especially the question of labor done for love as opposed to labor done for hire, one also addressed by Morris Rosenfeld in an earlier PotW, "For Hire."

Gary Allan Kizer wrote several superb poems. This chapbook is out of print, unfortunately. To give you a better idea of where he's coming from, here's part of his introduction to the chapbook, as it has more information than is readily findable on the Internet:
I was born on a farm outside of Salamanca, New York. Soon after, my parents moved to Buffalo and went to work in the munitions industry toward the end of WWII. My dad split when I was five and I was raised in Buffalo by my mother and two older sisters. Following that came public school, young romance, juvenile delinquency and my first experience as a ward of the State. After 13 months of that, I cam home at 16, forged a birth certificate for 18 and went into the merchant marine. I also met a good woman. We lived common-law for 6 years and raised 5 children. I worked in the steel plants and as a roofer during the last 3 years I spent with my family. Then a man died and i went to Attica State Prison with a life sentence on my back. That was 9 years and 5 different prisons ago. I began reading Karl Marx during my third year in prison. About the same time, the State judged me as being incapable of rehabilitation. I hold the same opinion of the State. Read the book and see who's right.]

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December 16, 2012

I Have a 4-Year-Old Daughter. In the U.S. Today.

By Michael Leonardi

My daughter is 4 and she goes to school in this country of the United States. My wife and I are seriously contemplating leaving for her safety, not only from the sporadic violence but from the toxicity of poisoned air and water and land and the incredible emotional burden it is putting on us. Is there anywhere left to go on this Earth, to escape the bloody grip of the militarization, violence and contamination of our global economy coupled with the broadening societal psychosis? These United States have a policy of killing children around the world. At least in many other parts of the world life is held to be far more sacred, while here it too often seems that we are reduced to numbers of dead and collateral damage.

Today I was dealing with the county welfare office where there are a good number of young people who entered the field of social work in hopes of helping people. Each caseworker is responsible for 700 families and these young people whot are trying their best to help people are reduced to dealing with damage control in a system that is an overburdened, underfunded nightmare. I have learned that to receive assistance in the state of Ohio you must work at least 35 hours a week and that this work is paid barely minimum wage that does not allow people enough to survive in one of the poorest cities in America -- Toledo, Ohio. Here in Toledo about 60 people have been killed by guns this year -- mostly young people.

In this city and its surrounding suburbs there are many that claim we are blessed by the likes of British Petroleum Corporation, First Energy Corporation, Chrysler Corporation, Detroit Edison Corporation, which provide under 3 percent of the regional population good paying jobs to poison our air and water. It is said by our politicians that nuclear power, refining oil, burning coal, and making cars are what makes our city strong.

When I was dealing with the welfare office today, I finally spoke to a young woman who was very helpful after waiting on hold for over half an hour -- the average wait time when calling Jobs and Family Services. When I asked her name she explained that for security reasons they were not allowed to give out names on the phone because people have been tracked down on Facebook and threatened. She was number 63. I don't want my daughter to grow up to be a number in a society that does not value life--human life, or the rest of the natural world to which we should be so integrally linked.

In Italy recently there has been a major movement developing around this concept of respect for life. This movement is also happening in Japan and India and Egypt and Gaza and Canada and Pakistan and many other places where people have had enough. I know Italy because my daughter was born there. Workers have walked out the largest steel plant in Europe because they do not want to choose between a good paying job and the risk of their child developing early childhood leukemia and dying a miserable death as many children in the town surrounding this plant have been. The United States has a major military base nearby as they do in many areas of Italy. The bankers at the helm of the country are attempting to overrule the judges, the citizens and the workers that want this plant shut down. The United States military has been dumping radioactive waste around Italy, most recently near the northern city of Trieste.

In the United States of America there is such a movement but it is tiny as the society suffers from a myopic and sickly depression. Many are drugged into oblivion on antidepressants fed to them by criminal Pharmaceutical companies that part own our government along with the military and energy companies that keep everyone thinking that all is gonna be just fine again soon. In this country many children are drugged from a very early age, and the rest of the world thinks this is a sickening madness. Those that aren't clinging to sick care seem content to pretend that nothing is seriously wrong, while still others feel powerless in the face of it all and do nothing. In this country many children are drugged from a very early age. The rest of the world thinks this is a sickening madness. You would be hard pressed to find any child on Ritalin in most countries. It is as if America has been zombified.

Shortly after the Columbine shootings president Clinton said that "we need to teach our children to resolve conflicts without violence." Today, Obama cried as many of us have. These presidents uphold a system of killing around the world. Bombs drop in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, from our unmanned drones killing children regularly. Here are some excerpts ofrom Michael Moore's film Bowling For Columbine that still today hold many truths,

At the U.S. Air Force Academy, south of Littleton, we see a shell of a B-52 bomber as a memorial to the North Vietnamese people it killed on Christmas Eve, 1972. Then Michael Moore’s voice-over continues, as we see images of Rocky Flats, where weapons-grade plutonium was manufactured—now a vast toxic waste dump. A few miles away is NORAD, buried in Cheyenne Mt., the center of all nuclear weapons control in case of a World War. Then Moore notes that once a month Lockheed transports one of its completed missiles on the highways of Littleton—late in the night. Moore’s voice-over: “…passing nearby Columbine High School. The rockets are transported in the middle of the night, while the children of Columbine are asleep.”


Graphic on the screen: “April 20, 1999.” Shots of the bombing of Kosovo, conducted under the aegis of NATO. Graphic on screen: “Largest one day bombing by U.S. in Kosovo War”—a title that’s more than a little misleading. Then file footage of dead villagers killed when bombs were accidentally dropped on their village. Cut to Pres. Clinton, who says, “We are striking hard at Serbia’s machinery of repression.” Then we hear a foreign correspondent’s voice saying “on the hit list were a hospital and a local primary school.” Graphic on the screen: “One Hour Later.” We see President Clinton again. “We all know there has been a terrible shooting in a high school in Littleton, Colorado. I hope the American people will be praying for the students, and the parents, and the teachers."

This country has a long way to go to healing and until the chains of slavery to a neoliberal police state are shaken, the process will not have even begun.

Michael Leonardi is a Toledo resident, an activist currently working to end nuclear power and a frequent contributor to Counterpunch.

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December 11, 2012

Poem of the Week: Working on Wall Street


May Swenson

What's left of the sun's watered blood
settles between the slabs of Wall Street.
Winter rubs the sky bruise-blue as flesh.
We head down into the subway, glad
the cars are padded with bodies so we
keep warm. Emptied from tall closets
where we work, on the days' shelves
reached by elevators, the heap of us,
pressed by iron sides, dives forward under
the city--parcels shipped out in a trunk.

The train climbs from its cut to the trestle.
Sunset's gone. Those slabs across the murky
river have shrunk to figurines, reflectiing
the blush of neon, a dainty tableau, all
pink, on the dresser top of Manhattan--
eclipsed as we sink into the tunnel.
The train drops and flattens for the long
bore under Brooklyn.

Night, a hiatus hardly real, tomorrow
this double rut of steel will racket us back
to the city, We, packages in the trade
made day after day, will tumble out of
hatches on The Street, to be met by swags
of wind that scupper off those roofs
(their upper windows blood-filled by the sun,)
Delivered into lobbies, clapped into upgoing
cages, sorted to our compartments, we'll be
stamped once more for our wages.


[I was a bit surprised that this brilliantly written work by one of the 20th century's great poets didn't get any play during the heyday of Occupy Wall Street! last year. Though I've never seen any indication May Swenson was a Red, or even hung around with them, her poem recasts the daily labors of office workers in the financial district as literal commodities. 
And it presents a vision of the daily commute to and from Brooklyn that could have been written this evening. Reading it, I am forcibly reminded of my comrades who struggled to build Office Workers United and unionize clerical workers in the towers of Manhattan in the '70s.]

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November 30, 2012

PotW: Pome for Dionne Warwick aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise


Askia Muhammed Touré


Damn! . . . Baby, when I saw all that warmth,
that joy, that life
sucked in by the savage eyes of Beasts
raining "democratic' death upon the yellow world
of Vietnam, I almost cried.
YOU!--decked out in gaudy mod colors
mini-skirt riding high above regal honey thighs,
raped by the Dollar Juggernaut--"ENTERTAINING TROOPS!"
Black Princess chained upon the Modern Auction Block,
listen while the Auctioneer shouts above my rage:
                           IN! ! !"

from Natural Process, An Anthology of New Black Poetry, 1970

[This week's poem was chosen to honor Stevie Wonder for coming correct last week after a storm of protest greeted the announcement he would be performing at a benefit for the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces. Askia Muhammed Touré, activist and leading figure in the Black Arts Movement of the '60s, wrote his Pome toward the end of that decade, during the U.S. war on Vietnam. This latest victory for the nternational BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign targeting the apartheid state of Israel shows again that not all the lessons of the '60s have been lost.]

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November 21, 2012

Gaza Under Assault--A Letter

[This letter was written earlier today by Mads Gilbert,  a Norwegian physician working in Gaza. Gilbert describes the effects of the savage attacks of the IDF and the desperate struggle to save men, women and children caught up in the bombings. This hasty translation of Gilbert's letter into English was done in Norway. I have left it exactly it came to me--the meaning is clear, and polishing it would only detract from the immediacy of this report.]

Letter from Mads Gilbert, Gaza, 21.11 2012:

Midnight passed. No truce.

Also no children rest, resting woman or man rest.

Drones buzzing insects as evil and we know they are followed by thunderous detonations. The curtains in the window where I am writing this follows pressure and I can clearly feel the pressure waves. All windows are open so they do not implode and spread deadly swarms of glass.

There are so many deadly swarms here in Gaza. Grenade and bomb shrapnel, drone swarms, swarms of flyers with threatening to further terrorize the civilian population dropped from heaven.

It's been a terrible day.

It's hard to describe 13 torn bodies, dekapierte, torn limbs, charred, toddlers divided in two - it all comes to Shifa. With a desperate cry for help, screaming in pain. Mamma'er coinciding paralyzed in despair when the dead children recognized.
We are working.
Intubated, cuts of clothes, cannulated, trying to understand where the damage is on those who still have signs of life.
Today there were 24 deaths and 189 injured. Not everyone is going to Shifa, but many.
We lost two "on the table" splinter damage to the pulmonary artery and debilitating head injuries. A cava inferior-tear were rescued with the help of skilled vascular surgeons in the group of 40 volunteers Palestinian doctors who came from the West Bank yesterday.
Solidarity. New alliances among Palestinians. Major Arab delegations whizzes through the hospital with shocked faces while bombthunders unstoppable reminding them of the imminent in their political responsibilities.
A family with children coming into the morning hours after Israeli jetbombers have crushed the largest bank in the center of Gaza City. Dad is furious, calling for revenge. Children listen horrified.
Timeout at 00:44: Damn now, the bombs right at us. Serial Bombs.
How are they able to comfort their children during this night?
I'm scared. Evil seems to prevail.
I do not know about if "the world" know how this million prison really is. It is not possible to find shelter, resort, flight, protection. And the same power that keeps everyone trapped bombs simultaneously unstoppable with one of the world's most powerful war machine.
What would happen if Michelle Obama was here last night with his two daughters? Lived in a house in Beit Lahia in the outskirts of Gaza City, porr peoples quarters, without light, without any security. What if she ran into Shifa with one of their beautiful child in her arms, penetrated by shrapnel - without any opportunity to get away?
Would there been a change then?
I do not understand that Jens, Espen and Inga Marte and others who said so much right about the struggle against terrorism and political violence awhile ago - how can they sit with all their influence either silent or expressing understanding for Israel's "right to to defend itself"?
They attack the more, as they have attacked in the past 60 years.
Did we not learn that injustice must be stopped now, in our time, as we know and can act - not as an archaeological exercise with the hindsight lens and the cool, historian distance that makes the discomfort of betrayal easier to live with?
Do not send multiple bandages, doctors, lunches and meaningless statements.
Stop the bombing.
Open Gaza.
End okkupasjoen of Palestine.
Let the kids have peace.
Let the mothers breastfeed.
Let the old people drink clean water.
Let fishermen fish and farmers harvest.
Let teachers teach and children learn.
Let the youngsters travel and discover something other than siege, blockade and fear.
Let the soothing gentleness of the nights sleep lie like a rug over years of longing for rest of Gaza's people.
Then they do not need to defend themselves against superior power.
"Then the weapons sink impotently down
When we create human dignity
We create peace ", he wrote, Nordahl (Grieg).

Gaza, in the night's eerie.

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November 9, 2012

Poem of the Week: Underground USA, 1952


Kenneth Neil Cameron

even in this small town
in the dark
its still twice around the block
before you ring
('cause, brother, they can get
you for that,
that dynamite you're carrying
you even got Marx in there.)

but when the door opens
and the light falls
on her dark, womanly face
(mother of two, 15 bucks a week
for keeping white folks kitchens)
and you see the deep, friendly strength in her eyes
and beyond, in the light within
the other faces, white and black,
laughing, yearning, unafraid
calling to you,
you are not afraid either.

from Poems For Lovers And Rebels

[Cameron, as befit a leading scholar of Shelley's poetry, wrote some fine rebel verse himself. There are at least two other I may use in future years, if I can keep this up, This is one of his less formal poems, and I chose it because I realize that to speak of the underground today is to call up the 1970s, the BLA and the Weatherfolk. But state repression of the Communist Party in the 1950s also sent hundreds underground. So this is a reminder that we must be prepared for it to happen again. It also is a deceptively simple poem, because it's actually about being afraid while organizing, the fear unstated until the last lines, where it is not, it seems to me, so much banished, as acknowledged and handled.]

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November 1, 2012

Elegy For Our Dead


Edwin Rolfe

There is a place where, wisdom won, right recorded,
men move beautifully, striding across fields
whose wheat, wind-marceled, wanders unguarded
in unprotected places; where earth, revived, folds
all growing things closely to itself: the groves
of bursting olives, the vineyards ripe and heavy with
glowing grapes, the oranges like million suns; and graves
where lie, nurturing all these fields, my friends in death.

With them, deep in coolness, are memories of France and
the exact fields of Belgium: midnight marches in snows -
the single-file caravan high in the Pyrenees: the land
of Spain unfolded before them, dazzling the young Balboas.
This earth is enriched with Atlantic salt, spraying
the live, squinting eyelids, even now, of companions -
with towns of America, towers and mills, sun playing
always, in stone streets, wide fields -- all men's dominions.

Honor for them in this lies: that theirs is no special
strange plot of alien earth. Men of all lands here
lie side by side, at peace now after the crucial
torture of combat, bullet and bayonet gone, fear
conquered forever. Yes, knowing it well, they were willing
despite it to clothe their vision with flesh. And their rewards,
not sought for self, live in new faces, smiling,
remembering what they did here. Deeds were their final words.


    Salud! Poems, Stories and Sketches of Spain by American Writers

[Much great culture came form the international campaign to save the Spanish Republic from falling to Franco's reactionary coup and its allies, Hitler and Mussolini in the late 1930s. The poetry is less known than, say, Picasso's Guernica, Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, the incredible poster graphics or the songs of the International Brigades, Some of it is mighty fine, though, including this piece by Edwin Rolfe, a young communist from the US who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.]

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October 22, 2012

PotW: Words (For Amadou Diallo)


by Veronica Golos

Forty-one bullets--
nineteen in the soft plaster
of his body.
Their ritual marks
link the cracked wall,
the bloody palm-print;
the heavy meat
of his heart,

Blood flooded his lungs
their sea.
of cillia, air and water
rose to his eyes.
His flesh -
the blue bitter night.

All manner of speaking fails.
The sound of guns is near.

I would run through this city shouting
beware, beware, but I'd be telling a truth
we already know.

Tell me: Did he speak in his own tongue at the end?
Implore the stunned stars,
utter the unutterable name -
fire his whole life into a single,
final, vowel?

March, 2003

                          of war 

[Posted in observance of October 22, the national day of protest against police murders.]

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October 19, 2012

The Commune of 1880! (Their Nightmares Are Our Dreams)

I have been mucking about in the archives lately and, inspired by my bud Brad, sharing snapshots of this and that old flier or pamphlet of Facebook. Still, there are some things that can't be done justice by a photo of a cover.

Take for instance this booklet, entitled The Commune In 1880. Downfall Of The Republic. Written by "A Spectator" and published in NYC in 1877, it is a terrified response to the Great Railroad Strike earlier that year, with red flags flying on the Bowery, the Pittsburgh railroad hub in flames, and the city of St. Louis in the hands of the Workingman's Party for a week. And behind it, the specter haunting the author (or whoever paid the author to crank it out) is that of the Paris Commune of six years previous, hailed by Marx and Engels as the first example of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It is a capitalist dystopia. It starts with a description of the secret organizing done by workers and the general strike the unions call. All is peaceful until the employers issue a statement refusing all demands and announcing the militia will be called on strikers. That night quiet movements are heard in the narrator's neighborhood.

Do you hear a low murmur like a calm day at Rockaway? Yes! What is it? Wait! What is this they are bringing around the corner? Why look—look! A cannon? A cannon? Yes, a cannon. Then the arsenal and the armories are gutted. Look there! Look there! They fix it like a swivel on that car-truck. What is this? Good God, can it be a barricade? Then will it do deadly work in this narrow street. What flag is that they hoist above their entrenchment? I cannot see, it is so dark, but it appears to be all of one color. Ah, now a lantern shines upon it. Why, it is blood-red; it is the flag of the Commune!
Dawn reveals every residential street in the city held by the strikers. Efforts to mobilize the militia against them are hampered by the many desertions to the workers' cause. The women of the working communities shame those remaining, asking how they can side with the wealthy while their own children go hungry. Still the main forces of the organized proletariat are held in reserve, Finally, in the afternoon, they march downtown to City Hall Park, Wall Street and other areas still held by capital's forces. It makes for inspirinig reading:
Had the militia at this time had any orders, a great deal of damage would have been prevented and many lives saved. But no; there was no organization and thus they were kept on guard with no other orders but those from their residential commandants. The strikers, on the other hand, moved with regular step and seemed to have learned their duty by heart, for they never hesitated an instant. They were strong, muscular men, principally mechanics and laborers--carpenters to whom the musket seemed almost as familiar as the plane or chisel; rockmen and blasters to whom the smell of powder was by no means a rarity. The most powerful-looking were of course the blacksmiths and horse-shoers, who, at first unable to procure arms, had armed themselves with long sledge-hammers--terrible weapons at close quarters, particularly in the hands of those accustomed to swing them with as much ease as a professional ball-player can a base-ball club.
Kinda brings a tear to the eye, doesn't it?

After extended combat, despite heroic action by the narrator and other "patriots" they are driven back and defeated, "in fact, municipal, State and national governments had been swept away in the tremendous torrent of communism."

Of course, things must turn out badly (though not as badly as one might think), but I will leave the tale on this high note, and encourage anyone who wishes to read the whole thing, all 59 pulse-pounding pages, to help me find someplace that can scan it for me without breaking the spine, and I will post it here at FotM in its entirety.

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October 17, 2012



by John Beecher

old man John the melter
wouldn't tap steel till it was right
and he let the superintendents rave
he didn't give a damn about tonnage
but he did give a damn about steel
so they put him on the street
but he did have plenty of money
and he drove up and down in his "Wily Knecht"
a floatin pallus he called it
with a Pittsburg stogie in his whiskers
and played poker in the Elks club
and the steel got sorrier and sorrier
and rails got to breaking under trains
and the railroads quit buying
and the mill shut down
and then the superintendents asked old man John
to come and tell them what was wrong with the steel
and he told them
too many superintendents

from Report to the Stockholders & Other Poems, 1962

[John Beecher was a very good poet of working class life and struggle, notable for having kept the oppression of Black folk front and center in much of his writing--he grew up white, in Alabama. This one deals with another topic, the skills workers have and the power it gives them, which has driven so much of the last decades of capitalist deskilling and cybernation in the workplace. You can hear Beecher read it himself by clicking the little arrow by 102 here, and find five more of his best here.]

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October 11, 2012

Setting The Stage For Famine In North Korea

Reorganizing and purging my library recently, I came across a book I had made a mental note of years ago. Entitled Glorious Forty Years of Creation, Volume II, it is a rather sympathetic, to put it gently, account of Kim Il Sung's role in economic development and planning in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea from 1953 to 1966.

What struck me when first I read it, and the reason I hung on to it, is Chapter 7, "Maize Is the King of Dry-Field Crops." It describes certain policies adopted in the Three Year Plan put in place after the end of the Korean War, which had devastated the country's economy, South and North.

It was decided that the key in agriculture was the adoption of maize to replace millet, sorghum and other traditional grains as the main supplement to expanded rice production. Hence the slogan that heads the chapter,

So far, so good, I guess.

Nevertheless, the officials in the field of agriculture and scientists and technicians paid little attention to increasing the area in which maize was cultivated. To make matters worse, the anti-Party, counter-revolutionary factionalists said that if maize was planted every year, the yield would fall. They argued that crop rotation, which was not suited to our country with its limited area of arable land, should be introduced.

Naturally the great leader Kim IL Sung stepped in to "correct the erroneous view of the factionalists." The first few years' results, we are told, were good and thus "shattered the arguments" of those who insisted on crop rotation.

Okay, I'm no agronomist, no agricultural economist, but this is just tutti-frutti. Crop rotation is essential in maize and other high yielding grains. It's not just that they rapidly deplete the soil of nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients. These can be replaced, if imperfectly, with expensive fertilizer inputs. Rotation also interrupts the life cycles of harmful diseases and parasites that target one or another crop. It also, by extending the growing season, cuts soil erosion.

Even in giant corporate agriculture in the US, corn-soybean-corn (c-s-c) rotation is common although soaring prices can often tempt farmers to plant maize two or three years in a row (c-c, c-c-c) before rotating another crop in. Many farmers also add a third crop like wheat or red clover, as in this picture.

Now you might could argue for cutting some slack for 1953, but Glorious Forty Years of Creation was published in 1989! Advocates of crop rotation are still "anti-Party, counter-revolutionary factionalists."

The year 1989 is ironic. The broke and collapsing USSR, a major bulwark of the DPRK economy, has started charging market prices for petroleum, fertilizer and other agricultural inputs and within a couple of years will shut off the spigot entirely. And the great famine of the 1990s commences, causing many thousands of deaths and a sharp decrease in actual physical size among survivors who grew up during it. The DPRK is still far from self-sufficient in food production.

This is not a scientific study, just an impression, and I'd be interested to read arguments to the contrary, but until then, I'll stick with the idea that folks who have neither farmed, nor even studied farming in a systematic way, can be awfully dangerous when they pick up the cudgels of political and ideological line to determine how to feed a nation.

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Poem of the Week: Papermill


By Joseph Kalar

Not to be believed, this blunt savage wind
Blowing in chill empty rooms, this tornado
Surging and bellying across the oily floor
Pushing men out in streams before it;

Not to be believed, this dry fall
Of unseen fog drying the oil
And emptying the jiggling greasecups;
Not to be believed, this unseen hand
Weaving a filmy rust of spiderwebs
Over these turbines and grinding gears,
These snarling chippers and pounding jordans;
These fingers placed to lips saying shshsh:
Keep silent, keep silent, keep silent;
Not to be believed hardly, this clammy silence
Where once feet stamped over the oily floor,
Dinnerpails clattered, voices rose and fell
In laughter, curses, and songs. Now the guts
Of this mill have ceased and red changes to black,
Steam is cold water, silence is rust, and quiet
Spells hunger. Look at these men, now,
Standing before the iron gates, mumbling,
"Who could believe it? Who could believe it?"

from Papermill: Poems 1927-1936 (2006)

[I'd never heard of Joseph Kalar before I found this poem posted on Facebook by MN labor organizer Alan Maki. I first thought it was a poem of the collapse of the Rust Belt, but it turns out that the mill closing he describes happened during the early days of the Great Depression--kind of a trial run for the '70s. And the present day...]

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October 4, 2012

Poem of the Week: On Living


by Nâzım Hikmet
(translated by Mutlu Konuk and Randy Blasing)

Living is no laughing matter:
           you must live with great seriousness
                     like a squirrel, for example--
      I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,
                     I mean living must be your whole occupation.
Living is no laughing matter:
           you must take it seriously,
           so much so and to such a degree
      that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,
                                                   your back to the wall,
      or else in a laboratory
            in your white coat and safety glasses,
            you can die for people--
      even for people whose faces you've never seen,
      even though you know living
            is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
      that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees--
      and not for your children, either,
      but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
      because living, I mean, weighs heavier.


Let's say you're seriously ill, need surgery--
which is to say we might not get
                          from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
                          about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told,
we'll look out the window to see it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
                           for the latest newscast ...
Let's say we're at the front--
        for something worth fighting for, say.
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
        we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
        but we'll still worry ourselves to death
        about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say,
                            before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind--
                            I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
        we must live as if we will never die.


This earth will grow cold,

a star among stars
                and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet--
        I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
        in pitch-black space ...
You must grieve for this right now
--you have to feel this sorrow now--
for the world must be loved this much
                              if you're going to say "I lived"...

February, 1948

[Nizam Hikmet is considered--and not just by me--among the greatest communist poets ever. That reference in the second stanza, framed hypothetically, to being the slammer at 50, with 18 years to serve--Hikmet wrote this in a Turkish prison in the tenth year of a 28 year sentence for inciting revolt in the armed forces. Sailors had been found reading and discussing his poetry.  
The watercolor is a self-portrait drawn in prison.]

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October 2, 2012

A Crackerjack Election Overview

[With a month to go, even folks who weren't bored by the election to start with are now barely able to suppress a yawn. In part this is due to the spectacular ineptitude of the Romney campaign, which keeps shooting itself in various tender metaphorical body parts, with the result that even media efforts to gin up horse race fever are falling flat. 

To help FotM readers step back and think about what's going on, here is a great overview of the 2012 Presidential election. Part of its usefulness lies in the fact that my friend Mirk wrote it as a primer for folks in Norway, where it is being published in the magazine Rødt!, published by the Red Party there. The step back it provides can be useful for us in a whole 'nother way. ]





 by Judith "Mirk" Mirkinson

Yes, it’s election time again: time to elect the president. Every four years Americans are told this is the pinnacle of our democracy, NO! The pinnacle of world democracy! The pundits will be pontificating, the billions will be flowing and the candidates will be slogging it out, drowning us with style over substance. 
The US presidential elections are now endless affairs and handled almost like the World Cup or a baseball championship. The economy’s down; that means Romney is up. Romney refuses to release his tax returns: now Obama is up. Every little quote is analyzed, every stupid mistake made bigger. Sound bites abound -it doesn’t matter whether what a candidate says is actually true – people just have to listen. And after awhile people begin to believe what they hear, no matter where the real truth lies. 
People have a stake in believing it all and believing that voting every four years for one of the two major parties can make a difference. It’s essential that the electorate think they have a choice and a real voice in what kind of government we will have.

The New York Times, always attempting to bring more gravitas to the charade, laments: “The real issues will not be talked about, no solutions are being offered.” But the show goes on.

It’s not what one has to offer, it’s about how bad the other person is,

As the Republican speaker of the house John Boehner put it recently:
The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney. I’ll tell you this: 95 percent of the people that show up to vote in November are going to show up in that voting booth, and they are going to vote for or against Barack Obama.  
The pols and polls keep saying it’s going to be a close race. It seems rather unbelievable, given the incredible excitement generated by Barack Obama only four years ago. One would think that Obama would continue to be the most ideal choice for the corporate ruling class. In reality, he’s a right to middle of the road Democrat who’s presided over a war and militarized security state. At the same time, he’s young, he’s charismatic and he speaks of the future and an America that cares for all the people. As the first African American president he presents an America that has overcome its history – one that is perfect for the U.S. in this new, more complex world we live in. 
It’s another ” demonstration election” – a concept perfected in America and now exported all over the world. Choosing among a limited range of options creates the illusion of democracy, and the illusion of real choice. No longer can the US support

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September 26, 2012

Poem of the Week: Old Lem


Sterling Brown


I talked to old Lem
and old Lem said:
          “They weigh the cotton
          They store the corn
                We only good enough
                To work the rows;
          They run the commissary
          They keep the books
                We gotta be grateful
                For being cheated;
          Whippersnapper clerks
          Call us out of our name
                We got to say mister
                To spindling boys
          They make our figgers
          Turn somersets
          We buck in the middle
                Say, “Thankyuh, sah.”
                They don’t come by ones
                They don’t come by twos
                But they come by tens.

          “They got the judges
          They got the lawyers
          They got the jury-rolls
          They got the law
                They don’t come by ones
          They got the sheriffs
          They got the deputies
                       They don’t come by twos
          They got the shotguns
          They got the rope
                We git the justice
                In the end
                       And they come by tens.

          “Their fists stay closed
          Their eyes look straight
                Our hands stay open
                Our eyes must fall
                       They don’t come by ones
          They got the manhood
          They got the courage
                       They don’t come by twos
                We got to slink around
                Hangtailed hounds.
          They burn us when we dogs
          They burn us when we men
                       They come by tens . . .

          “I had a buddy
          Six foot of man
          Muscled up perfect
          Game to the heart
                       They don’t come by ones
          Outworked and outfought
          Any man or two men
                       They don’t come by twos
          He spoke out of turn
          At the commissary
          They gave him a day
          To git out the county
          He didn’t take it.
          He said ‘Come and get me.’
          They came and got him
                       And they came by tens.
          He stayed in the county—
          He lays there dead.

                       They don’t come by ones
                       They don’t come by twos
                       But they come by tens.”

    [I chose this relatively well-known poem by Sterling Brown as a followup to last week's "Dead Man Blues" by Lucy Smith. It, too, is a grim and pessimistic look at how the oppression of the Black Nation was maintained in the days before the Civil Rights Movement, and at the double-barreled use of the state and vigilante terror.]

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September 17, 2012

PotW: Dead Man Blues


by Lucy Smith

Down in the lonesome death cell
A black man sits and sings.
The key he sings is minor
For Sorrow plucks the strings.

       Wish I had died in my cradle, 
       Wish I had never been born;
       For I'm to hang in the morning,
       Hung in the cold, grey morn.

       Here in the valley of the shadow
       From death there's no escape
       I was the nearest black man
       When that white gal hollered rape

Down in the lonesome death cell
He sits and stares at his shoes.
Sorrow plucks the guitar strings
As he sings the Dead Man Blues.

No Middle Ground
(Philadelphia, 1952)

[This reminds me of the work of the great Sterling Brown, "Break Of Day," say.
Seems grim? This is why the Civil Rights Movement erupted.]

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September 10, 2012

PotW: What Kind of War?

by Larry Rottman

Ask what kind of war it is
where you can be pinned down
all day in a muddy rice paddy
while your buddies are being shot
and a close-support Phantom jet
who has been napalming the enemy
wraps itself around a tree and explodes
and you cheer inside?

Winning Hearts and Minds:
War Poems by Vietnam Veterans
(Brooklyn, NY, 1972)

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September 5, 2012

PotM: In the great snowfall before the bomb

In the great snowfall before the bomb

by Lorine Niedecker

In the great snowfall before the bomb
colored yule tree lights
windows, the only glow for contemplation
along this road

 I worked the print shop
right down among em
the folk from whom all poetry flows
and dreadfully much else.

 I was Blondie
I carried my bundles of hog feeder price lists
down by Larry the Lug,
I'd never get anywhere
because I'd never had suction,
pull, you know, favor, drag,
well-oiled protection.

I heard their rehashed radio barbs—
more barbarous among hirelings
as higher-ups grow more corrupt.
But what vitality! The women hold jobs—
clean house, cook, raise children,
bowl and go to church.

What would they say if they knew
I sit for two months on six lines
of poetry?

[This is the poem that made me a Lorine Niedecker fan. She was an Objectivist poet (NOT the Ayn Rand bullshit, but a Reddish school of Modernist poetry which fell into obscurity during the McCarthy era) who lived and worked in rural Wisconsin. 

An article by Elizabeth Willis is a good introduction to her, but there's a lot more on the Internet about her life and her poetry. (Some of the articles mention that she worked for Hoard's Dairyman, which she refers to in this poem, but few of those commenting seem to understand the central role this weekly publication played for North American dairy farmers throughout the 20th century.)

It's a short poem, but a rich one, touching on the Bomb, the lives of working people--including the work itself, women's role in society and the weird distance the lone artist must feel in larger communities.]

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August 31, 2012

'60s Lefties--Did You Sing This?

I found this in part of my ongoing tighten-up of my archives in an old file labelled, prosaically, "songs."

The thing is, I actually remember singing this, around 1971. Trust me, even then it was a little odd, but kind of in the spirit of the Weather songbook. I think a woman I knew then named Claire had a hand in writing it, but I am not sure.

So the question is, Old Bolsheviks: Is this new to you or did it get around beyond NYC? (And if so, how does it compare with your version?)


I'd like to teach the world to speak in perfect Mandarin,
with Uncle Ho and Chairman Mao, Fidel and Madame Binh

I'd like to see the victory of every people's war
I' d like to see the Third World win and even up the score

I'd like to teach the white kids here that there is really hope
if they would only learn to fight instead of blowing dope.

I'd like to see my sisters dig that people's war is right,
'cause people's war is women's war when women lead the fight.

I'd liike to see the prisoners demand to be set free
(be) implemented in the streets by folks like you and me.

I'd like to see this country shake, from the west coast to the east;
I'd like to make some trouble in the belly of the beast.

Note 1: That's an exact copy of the text on the sheet. Missing is the chorus:

Revolution (pause) It's The Real Thing

Note 2: For some reason I honestly didn't remember that third verse being there.

Note 3: Hardasses would substitute Enver for Fidel

Note 4. For those of us in our reclining years, the original is instantly identifiable. It's what Dave Berry calls brain sludge and it won't go away until we die. Do the young'ns reading this know this tune, or should I embed a video?

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August 30, 2012

Libya & Artie Take It To Mittens.

I haven't been particularly eager to write about the election. Still not, in fact. But I saw this picture and felt impelled to learn some more about it. A friend in the know filled me in a bit

Mitt Romney is hardly the first rich man to run for President, but he's almost novel in the way he represents the very top of what we've all learned to call "The 1%."

Though you wouldn't know it from the media coverage, there are some other voices being heard in Tampa this week. The photo comes, it turns out, by way of One Pittsburgh, a vigorous community activist group that has been fighting to tax the rich to fund public services, and -- most recently -- to raise the minimum wage. (If you are a Facebook type you are strongly encouraged to go "Like" One Pittsburgh.)

Here, on the right, among several activists from around the country, are Libya Wilson and Artie Rawls. Both from Pittsburgh, .

Libya works for Dunkin' Donuts, and Artie (who is a Navy veteran) works for Burlington Coat Factory. They were part of a crowd that was blocked from trying to greet Pennsylvania Republican delegates Tuesday. Libya -- whose fiancee also works at Dunkin' Donuts, while they try to raise a family on less than $8 an hour -- said of the Republicans:
They don't know where I'm coming from. I want them to know.
Bain Capital, along with two other "private equity" buyout firms (the Carlyle Group and Thomas Lee Partners) bought Dunkin Brands -- which franchises both Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin Robbins stores -- in 2006. The company itself ended up with a huge debt load, but the buyout firms did just fine for themselves: In November of 2010, they had Dunkin' Donuts borrow $500 million to pay themselves a dividend, before taking the company back to the stock market in an initial public offering (IPO) in July 2011.

Bain is still a major shareholder in Dunkin' Brands, and they handsomely reward top management at the company. The Dunkin Brands CEO, Nigel Travis, was paid nearly $1.96 million last year, and that wasn't even his best year. At 40 hours a week, that's $941 an hour for Mr. Travis, compared to less than $8 for people like Libya Wilson. (The One Pittsburgh Facebook page, linked above, has a "McJob Creators" file with some more fun graphics like the one of Mr. Travis.)

At first, Mitt Romney thought that his record at Bain Capital was going to be an asset for his political campaign, because it showed he had "business experience" and was a "problem-fixer." Happily -- and in no small part thanks to diligent community activists like Libya Wilson and Artie Rawls -- there are fewer and fewer people in this country who believe mystifications like that anymore.

In economic hard times like these, it's actually kind of a liability -- in most people's minds -- if you're the kind of person who goes around ripping other people off to make yourself a multi-millionaire with multiple houses, a car elevator, and a dressage horse. So Romney has not only been downplaying his record at Bain -- or at least belatedly trying to rehabilitate himself -- but he's been loudly proclaiming that he's no longer associated with the company and its current predatory business decisions.

But that, too, is untrue. Romney still makes millions of dollars a year from at least 22 funds at Bain, His vast personal fortune is augmented by a "retirement fund" that could single-handedly relieve the pension funding problems of your average financially-troubled medium-size city.

We all know that the US government governs on behalf of of the super-rich, but Mitt Romney seems to think that his class ought to take over directly, and that he's the man to head the hostile takeover. The contrast with the vast majority of the people of the United States could not be more plain.

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August 27, 2012

Poem of the Week: Sandinista Avioncitas

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The little airplanes of the heart
with their brave little propellers
What can they do
against the winds of darkness
even as butterflies are beaten back
by hurricanes
yet do not die
They lie in wait wherever
they can hide and hang
their fine wings folded
and when the killer-wind dies
they flutter forth again
into the new-blown light
live as leaves

from These Are My Rivers: New & Selected Poems, 1955-1993

[This was posted briefly in the late '90s on NYC subway car cards as part of the Poetry In Motion series. I waited, virtuously, until they started changing over to a new poem and snatched one. I got it signed by Ferlinghetti at City Lights on a trip to SF and now it adorns my wall.]

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August 25, 2012

Liberate Everything: The Story of the Victor Martinez People's Library (So Far)

[Fire on the Mountain is most pleased to present this photo essay on the ongoing struggle to build a library and community garden in spaces that the city of Oakland has abandoned. It is also scheduled for posting at the website of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad.]

by Tom Attaway

Signs of the history of people’s struggles in East Oakland are all around for those who have eyes to see them...

Middle class white residents who once lived in these lowland neighborhoods have fled up to the Oakland hills, leaving this part of town to its multinational working class residents...

In the Chican@/Mexican@ neighborhood around International Blvd and 23rd Avenue, those signs of history can be seen in the building at 1449 Miller Ave. 
Originally a Carnegie-funded library built in this working-class neighborhood in 1910s, the building represented the city’s commitment to provide amenities for all of its residents.  After the library closed in the 1970s, the building housed the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy.  This institution, which grew out of the revolutionary national movements which erupted in Oakland in the 1960s and 70s, was an alternative high school for Chicano students in the neighborhood.  The Academy closed its doors in the late 1980s and after brief use as a church and a social services center, the building was left vacant. A space gifted to the people of Oakland for their benefit became an urban blight, slowly filling with refuse from sporadic squatters.

That was until earlier this month, when Oakland activists, coming together from Occupy Oakland and other radical projects in the East Bay, opened the space .... 
And cleaned it up...

And filled the shelves with books again...

They named the space the Victor Martinez People’s Library (Biblioteca Popular Victor Martinez), in honor of the Bay-area Chicano writer and poet who died last year.

A casual observer might think that the city of Oakland was paying no attention to this neighborhood given the violence, drug use, prostitution and other social ills which flourish in plain sight nearby.  But there are certain things that simply

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August 20, 2012

Poem of the Week: For Hire

by Morris Rosenfeld 
(translated by Rose Pastor Stokes and Helena Frank)

Work with might and main,
  Or with hand and heart,
Work with soul and brain,
  Or with holy art,
Thread, or genius’ fire—
  Make a vest, or verse—
 If ’tis done for hire,
  It is done the worse.


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August 13, 2012

Poem of the Week: Blues For Cisco Houston

by Thomas McGrath

More than nine hundred miles from home now Cisco --
Poor boy, gone underground to the final proletariat,
Old Blue following possum in the new ground corn
In the blaze of your death, by the light of your incendiary guitar.

Vessel of light, that black gut-box you carried!
Transport of insurrectionary calendars between Spain and Cuba
Bringing to rebels the hot Word, the machine guns of flowers and
    humming birds
Through the money-talking loaves and fishes of the God-blessed
    corporate sea.

In season the moth wing frosts the lamp with incandescent
Mortality. And beyond the frets and freights, half steps,
Stops, changes of time and times -- this train don't carry no
Rustlers, whores nor tin horn hustlers
. Gone. Glory train. Blazing

But here was a man come with a miracle in his bindle!
Winter multitudes warmed at the electric bread of your song,
The butterfly slept secure at the center of the Bomb,
And the Revolution caught fire wherever you came to town.

Movie at the End of the World 
(Swallow Press, 1972)

[With all the observances this year of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Woody Guthrie, it seems fitting to tip the hat to his running buddy, comrade and fellow singer, Cisco Houston, especially this week--he would have been 96 on Saturday, the 18th. I highly recommend the splendid Cisco Houston website, to those who know his work as much as to those new to it, as well as to anyone interested in working class culture in the US. The video features a song from the very first record album I ever bought with my own money.]

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